This series sure has become a lot of fun since the Hydra reveal. Last week’s episode featured an action sequence with a flying 1962 Corvette, and this week, it has characters using joy buzzer EMPs and laser cigarettes as they engage in rogue secret agent missions from a motel room home base. Combined with the drama introduced by the events of The Winter Soldier, that sense of comic-booky fun has greatly increased the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s forward momentum and made it a more enjoyable weekly experience.
“Ragtag” balances those two elements wonderfully, as it sets the stage for the season finale, providing drama via flashbacks to the early years of Ward and Garrett’s relationship and amusement through the undercover espionage antics of Coulson’s team. While Raina works to uncover the secret of GH-325 for Garrett, Coulson and May go undercover at Cybertek, the tech company behind Project: Deathlok, to hook up a flash drive that will activate the Trojan horse virus Skye hid inside the encrypted S.H.I.E.L.D. files.
It’s a bunch of tech mumbo jumbo that is really just an excuse to have Coulson and May roleplay as Fitz and Simmons when they go undercover at Cybertek, and injecting comedy in the middle of these huge dramatic stakes is not only refreshing, but helps shows the extent of Coulson and May’s reconciliation. Humor is an easy way to show the level of comfort between characters, and writer Jeffrey Bell gives the cast strong banter that makes the ensemble sound like a tight-knit team.
When Coulson and May go undercover, they present Fitz and Simmons’ inventions while delivering lines recited to them by the inventors, so when Fitz and Simmons slip into their usual banter, it gets translated through Coulson and May. Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen have a lot of fun engaging in some lighter material, and this kind of hands-on undercover spy stuff is what this show should have been doing from the very beginning, rather than spending all that time with touch-screens on a plane.
After the interview, Coulson and May do some sneaking around, find the information they need in a filing cabinet (because Cybertek does everything on hard copies), and make their escape by chucking the cabinet out the window and zip-lining to a van from the fourth floor of the building. It’s just good, old-fashioned action courtesy of some spies without an agency that have decided to take the law into their own hands in order to see justice, which is a much better angle for this show than whatever it was when S.H.I.E.L.D. still existed.
As Coulson and his team discover from Cybertek records that Garrett is actually Deathlok 1.0, the origin of this season’s big bad and his right hand man is detailed through flashbacks, beginning with Garrett pulling Ward from a juvie 15 years ago to train him to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Ward was locked up for sneaking away from his military school, stealing a car, driving over 1000 miles to his family home, and setting it on fire with his brother still inside, and Garrett offers him a chance to escape a future in captivity if he gives himself over to the organizations lurking in the shadows.
Other than the rough wig worn by young Ward, the flashbacks are worthwhile glimpses into the past, revealing how Garrett turned against S.H.I.E.L.D. after being abandoned in the line of duty and the ways he manipulated Ward into becoming the perfect little soldier. Leaving Ward and his dog Buddy in a forest for six months to fend for themselves is just the start of the training, and once Ward proves that he can survive that, Garrett starts getting into the specifics of the secret agent lifestyle, beginning with teaching him how to shoot.
Five years later, Garrett tells Ward about the IED injury that changed his life and showed him what S.H.I.E.L.D. was really like, bringing Ward into the Hydra fray where he can’t allow any personal connections to weaken him. To see if Ward can follow orders like a good pawn, Garrett orders him to kill Buddy, and he does it, because that’s just the kind of cold-hearted son of a bitch Ward is now. He’ll have to face the decision of whether or not to kill a friend again when Garrett asks him to take out a captured Fitz and Simmons, and Ward proves his loyalty to Hydra and his evilness to Fitz by dropping his old teammates out of the Bus’ cargo hatch and into the ocean. (Luckily, Fitz has a quarter walkie-talkie with a built-in homing beacon to save them next week.)
Along with some very nice character moments—May and Skye’s conversation about Ward and how to cope with emotional trauma is a highlight—this episode continues to put pieces together to form this season’s bigger picture. It’s revealed that the reason Garrett is so eager to discover the mysteries of GH-325 is because his cybernetic implants are killing him, and he hopes the alien goo can heal the damage done to his internal organs by the procedure. When Fitz sets off his joy buzzer EMP, he causes Garrett’s implants to malfunction and forces the man to inject himself with GH-325 in order to survive; considering the drug’s impact on the mental state of its user, this is very bad news for Coulson’s team.
Also bad news: the army of Deathloks and Extremis soldiers that Hydra is planning to sell to the U.S. government, because the U.S. government has not yet learned that mass-produced super soldiers is a horrible idea. Things are looking pretty dire as we head into the finale with Fitz and Simmons sinking to the bottom of the ocean, Garrett stronger than ever, and Coulson and friends surrounded by Deathloks and Extremis soldiers, but the bleaker the circumstances, the greater the satisfaction when victory is achieved.
- This week’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. artwork comes from Pretty Deadly artist Emma Rios, who delivers a gorgeous shot of the dueling sides of Ward’s psyche.
- Raina drops some cryptic clues about Skye’s origin, mentioning that her parents were “monsters” who tore through the Hunan province looking for their child. I really hope the payoff there is interesting.
- “People are killed by guns everyday in Bogota. But how often does a monster punch a drug lord’s head clean off? That’s international news.”
- “Watch out, Hydra. Here we come.”
- Fitz: “I told you we should have gone in.” Simmons: “May looks barely a day over (notices walkie talkie)…30. You’re gorgeous!”
- Ward: “What are you feeling?” Garrett: “The universe.”